JANESVILLE, WI — The Janesville Jets, proud members of the North American Hockey League (NAHL), are pleased to announce that forward Nick Michel has committed to play NCAA Division I hockey for the Alabama-Huntsville Chargers of the Western Collegiate Hockey Conference (WCHA).
“It feels incredible,” said Michel. “There was obviously a point in my career where I didn’t know if I was going to be playing hockey again. Then to come back, and have the trust of coach Leivermann and coach Childs who took a chance on a kid with a lot of question marks…to get a Division 1 deal out of this thing feels incredible.”
In spring 2018, Michel (5-10/180), then a member of the Minnesota Wilderness, scored a goal and suffered a devastating knee injury on the same play, crashing the net from the left wing. His return to play would take four surgeries, more than a year of arduous rehabilitation, and countless mental battles. The Jets signed Michel to a tender contract in April 2019, and he hit the ice again that fall. The native of Waconia, Minnesota, would appear in 32 games for the Jets, scoring 14 points and adding immeasurable experience to the young roster as an age-out veteran who fought through an almost impossibly difficult recovery.
Associate head coach Lennie Childs called Michel one of the most persistent players he’s ever seen.
“You don’t really see too many stories of players with essentially a career-ending injury make it to a high level,” Childs said. “It’s super hard to do. There’s a lot of doubt and fear that understandably sets in. But Nick found a way to overcome that doubt, and battle his circumstances to pull himself through. On an everyday basis, that was what always showed strongest about him. He never looked down, always stayed positive, and was always ready to work. Nick is a player who asks what more he can do. Someone who’s comfortable, who’s fine with just being what they are, they wouldn’t be able to battle through what Nick Michel did. But someone who pushes themselves becomes a success story, like Nick did, and they can overcome some of the biggest challenges and hurdles any hockey player would face.”
Michel’s injury came at the end of his first season of junior hockey, after a four-year high school career playing for the Holy Family Fire. He said it was his dad, Tony, who instilled in him the perseverance a player needs when facing a potentially career-threatening injury.
“I think I’ve always been an underdog with everything in my life,” Michel said. “Whether it was with school or with hockey, I always had the attitude that ‘you may be smarter than me, or you may be more skilled than me, but you won’t outwork me.’ Being told I wouldn’t be able to do something just makes me want to do it even more. There’s nothing better than showing you can do whatever you put your mind to, no matter where you come from or what your background is.”
A player so committed to that way of thinking will fit right in with the Chargers. In mid-May, the school announced that the men’s hockey program would be eliminated, but in a matter of days, a fundraising effort from alumni and supporters raised more than $500,000 to revive the program for the 2020-21 season. More work remains for permanent stability, with long-term funding, conference, and facility uncertainty, but the “down-but-not-out” mentality that Michel used to resurrect his career can help rebuild Chargers hockey.
“Anything that’s a challenge, I’m all in on,” said Michel. “We want to get back on top in the coming years, and I figured that was a great fit for me, to get a chance to go somewhere to help build back up a winning program that the city of Huntsville deserves.”
Michel, who played for Team Midwest at the 2020 NAHL Top Prospects Tournament, stepped up down the stretch for the Jets. He scored four goals in a five-game span in late February, and answered the bell with fights in back-to-back contests versus the Springfield Jr. Blues and the Chippewa Steel. He said the conversations with the Chargers’ staff began recently, and he called on an old roommate to get the inside scoop on the program. Defenseman Jay Powell lived with Michel for about four months in Cloquet, Minnesota, when both were members of the Wilderness.
“Initially I told them I needed to sleep on it,” said Michel. “I called Jay, asked him a bunch of questions, and I liked everything I had to hear. I talked to my parents and we decided it was a good fit for me, so I called back and said I was all in.”
Michel will become the first Jets alumnus to play for Alabama-Huntsville, which Childs said represents lots of potential.
“It’s great to get your first player to a new program,” he said. “What it shows is that you’re doing things the right way, and that school respects your program and what it stands for. He’s a really good player and a really good human being who will show them what the Janesville Jets are all about for the future. When he goes down there and represents us with his work ethic in the gym, on the ice, and in the community, that underlines who he is and who Janesville is, and that’s what’s exciting for me to see.”
Three months after a global pandemic shortened an age-out player’s final season of junior hockey, one in which he returned to the ice after an 18-month recovery from a knee injury, he commits to a Division I program that was on the brink of elimination. Now, they continue their uphill climbs together, and Michel said he couldn’t have imagined it happening out of any other team.
“It means everything to commit as a Jet,” he said. “This was the program that gave me a second chance of pursuing my dream. From the ownership on down, it’s a first-class organization, and I couldn’t be more thankful.”